I visited Cuba this past summer in July. The beginning of this trip began with a sort of impossibility- an Americana sailing off to the island that had been closed off to Americans for decades. Before Obama’s presidency ended, he lifted the embargo on Cuba and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime… until the new president would once again declare Cuba was off limits. Fortunately, my siblings and I had already made a boarding reservation and could technically still travel to the island so we boarded the plane to Havana and did not look back. We were having the opportunity of a lifetime!
I was excited to see the architecture and art, the classic American cars, the beaches, and dance salsa. As a Puerto Rican, I was sure Cuba would feel like another ‘home’ because of its’ relationship to Puerto Rico and geographical location in the Caribbean. When I visited the Dominican Republic four years ago for a college service-learning trip, I remembered thinking- wow this island looks so much like Puerto Rico. But, what I felt in Cuba was unlike the experience I had in the Dominican Republic.
Geopolitics and history informed my visit much more than I anticipated. I landed in Havana and awaited my taxi driver along with my siblings. We talked about how it felt like we traveled back in time opening a time capsule from the Cold War Era. Hopping into an old American car I was reminded of a past where U.S.-Cuba relations were better, to say the least. Very quickly, due to the lack of air conditioning in the taxi, I noticed that I didn’t have the amenities I was used to. My American privilege was not to blame for this exactly. I visited Puerto Rico countless times and, as I said earlier, I have visited the Dominican Republic and was no stranger to vacationing in simpler fashions, but taxis in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico did have air conditioning. It seems so mundane to think so much about a taxi ride without a.c. in ninety-degree weather, but it prepared me for the week ahead.
Once the drivers knew my siblings and I were Puerto Rican, they gave us a warm welcome- almost as if they were welcoming a Cuban home to their island. It’s a feeling remember having when I land in the San Juan airport and random staff or passengers welcome me ‘back home’. This concept of home is so strange to since its directly connected to my identity. I was born in the United States to Puerto Rican immigrants who raised me with Puerto Rican traditions and culture, so I felt more Puerto Rican than American. I didn’t eat turkey on Thanksgiving- we had lechón. I didn’t celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day- we celebrated the night before, on Noche Buena, and waited until midnight to open presents. My first language was Spanish and for most of my childhood we only spoke in Spanish at home. So, I strongly feel that Puerto Rico is home in my heart. Maybe, that has something to do with being a child of diaspora- constantly feeling like you’re not home or do not belong y que la isla te está llamando.
Puerto Rico is home for my parents because they were born there. The United States is undoubtedly my home based on my birthright, but when I’ve been welcomed ‘home’ in Puerto Rico I can’t help but question what it means to really return to Puerto Rico, or if it can be a second home for me. Could it be that I’m longing for my ancestral home? One of the drivers connected us by saying we are all hermanos. Boricuas y Cubanos are family, he said, because Puerto Ricans fought for Cuba’s liberation and Cuban armies were going to make their way to Puerto Rico. He said, “los boricuas y Cubanos son miembros de dos alas y un pajaro”. He was referring to Lola Rodriguez de Tio’s poem, “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas,” which meant that our relationship, and the greater Puerto Rico-Cuba relationship, was not only historical but it was also familial. The relationships my ancestors created long ago made us welcomed visitors- even hermanos during our visit in 2017. Those words sang in my heart because I felt it, too. There was something really special about being in Cuba and I had only been there about an hour. We talked about the formation of our flags and that they are inversed because they are the flags of one bird. He assured me that one day Puerto Rico will have their shot at independence, even though that is not something you can promise.
By day two, I grew accustomed to perpetual sweating, frizzy hair, and the heat. I also learned many restaurants run out of food and supplies, so we usually didn’t go to the same place two days in a row. Finding a place to eat in Havana was mostly an adventure- we gave ourselves ample time to walk and find a place before we continued our itinerary for the day. When our local guide took us to a restaurant in the campo, we finally tasted delicious Cuban morro, bistec encebollado, and yuca. In the struggle to find food everyday, I thought about my privileged American way of life. Aside from the beautiful beaches and lovely walks throughout various parts of Havana, my favorite part of the trip was dancing salsa and watching Cubans dance salsa. They don’t dance “on 2” like Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers do, which is the style I’m trained in. Los jardines, a fun dance club by the coast of Havana, was a place where dance troupes performed and battled each other on the floor– a place that showed me that once again Puerto Ricans and Cubans were connected.
The phrase “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas” memorialized my trip to Cuba- various taxi drivers, waitresses, and people mentioned the phrase when they learned about my heritage and cultural background. You see, this relationship between Cuba and Puerto Rico crystallized something beyond comradery for me in Cuba… it provided me with a sense of community that I could be a part of. Needless to say, I came back from Cuba five pounds lighter, with less desire to use social media due to my internet cleanse, and with a deeper appreciation for the simpler, beautiful things in life- my family, friends, and the beautiful earth around me.